A copy of John James Audubon's “Birds of America” was sold at an auction in London last week for £7.3 million ($11.5 million), and thus becoming the most expensive book ever sold. The auction was a rare chance to own one of the best preserved editions of the 19th century masterpiece, with its 435 hand-colored illustrations. The winning bid was placed by London-based art dealer Michael Tollemache, who outbid three others during the auction.
Birds of America was first published as a series of sections between 1827 and 1838. Only 119 copies were published of which fewer than a dozen are in private hands. Each of the printed book were colored by hand, and it was an extremely laborious process. Even by today's standards, the vividness of its illustrations of birds is extraordinary but when it was being released in the 1830s it was mindboggling.
Audubon employed a rather shocking technique to produce the book. He hunted the birds down and shot them before propping them up on wires to paint. Each drawing would take about 60 hours to complete. Ironically, many of his beautifully rendered subjects are now extinct, such as the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Esquimaux Curlew, and Pinnated Grouse.
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